It’ll be pretty obvious to anyone who watches the new “Danica” documentary that Danica Patrick madly and deeply loves her family, her dogs, her boyfriend, yoga, her woman cave, and her coffee-cup collection (especially the unicorn).
What’s less clear from the 66-minute film – which premieres at 8 p.m. Wednesday on the EPIX network – is how she truly feels these days about being a race-car driver.
At different points, she voices frustration and/or irritation with other drivers, with fans, with internet trolls, with the media, with her cars, with the fact that she’s held to a different standard in NASCAR because she’s a woman.
And so it seems like a fair enough place to start: Does she still love her job?
“I love parts of it,” Patrick said in a phone interview with the Observer Thursday. “I like the mental side of things. I like the challenge. I like setting a goal and achieving it – so, lap times, position, finishing.
“But I’ve never been someone that wants to go hang out at the track and watch other cars go around, and I don’t want to go drive someone else’s car for a joyride. It’s not for the joy of just driving. ... The point is to accomplish great results on the track. If I’m not gonna finish well, then it’s not fun to me.”
This, of course, is the perfect setup for those trolls, who will read those last two sentences and leap at the opportunity to point out her lack of great results on the track and her inability to finish well – which the documentary spells out explicitly: Since 2012, in six seasons on NASCAR’s top circuit, Patrick has seven Top-10 finishes, an average finish of 24th place, just one pole, and zero wins.
As “Danica” director Hannah Storm notes, though, you can’t just base her merit on those statistics in a vacuum.
“The one thing that really gets lost and is underappreciated by a lot of people,” Storm said, “is the positive impact she had both on IndyCar racing and NASCAR racing, in terms of drawing new fans into each of those racing disciplines, in terms of bringing money in, in terms of lifting the tide of both sports and the interest level, which translates into television dollars, which translates into merchandise, and people coming to the track.
“If you want to drill it down to the fact that she hasn’t won a race (in NASCAR) and rip her for that, to me that’s very small-minded. It’s petty. And I think it stems from jealousy, insecurity, ignorance. ... She’s clearly held to a different standard because she’s a woman.”
(Storm should know a little something about being a woman in a man’s world, by the way: She helped pave the way for women in sports broadcasting as a host for shows on CNN and NBC in the 1990s.)
Or, if that argument isn’t good enough for you, she points to a sound bite of Patrick’s from the film: “If you don’t think I can drive, good God, I feel bad for the rest of the half of the field that I beat every weekend. What do you have to say about them?”
‘I don’t care if someone hates me’
“Danica” hits all the major notes of the pioneering driver’s career, zipping through her start at age 10 running go-karts and her days as a teenage formula racer in England, then celebrating her time in IndyCar (capped by her historic 2008 win, the first by a woman in the series) and her splashy introduction to NASCAR – followed by several seasons of professional discontent.
Much of her achievements and setbacks are framed around Patrick’s gender and public perception of her. On the track, the film concedes, she’s often viewed as standoffish and irascible; but it also argues that she gets less of a pass for her personality because she’s a woman.
And in interviews shot for the documentary, Patrick is a quote machine.
On her bikini-wearing GoDaddy.com days: “I feel awesome about being a sex symbol. ... The exposure that was generated because of being female and using my attributes – it works. Take it all with a grain of salt, y’all. I never did anything that I wasn’t comfortable with. Never. My comfort zone perhaps is larger than others’.”
On her critics and her outspokenness: “I don’t really care what anybody thinks. I don’t care if someone hates me. I don’t care if they know that I hate them. I’m just going to be totally honest about what I think, what’s bulls---, and what’s not. That’s it.”
On mediocrity: “I usually tell (reporters) if they come up with a really crappy question, like, ‘Are you excited about the season starting?’ Or, ‘How do you feel about being back in Kansas?’ And I’m like, ‘Is that the best you got? Is that the best question you could think of?’ I literally ask them that – and then they come up with a new one. And it’s better. It goes to my saying: Try harder.”
Despite her hard edges, however, “Danica” goes a long way toward softening the driver, too.
Much of Storm’s footage was shot in or near Patrick’s Charlotte-area home, over breakfast, during her yoga workouts, with her dogs. There are multiple segments that give viewers a surprisingly intimate peek inside her relationship with boyfriend and fellow NASCAR driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Interviews with Stenhouse, her parents T.J. and Bev Patrick, her sister Brooke Selman; her friend and business manager Haley Moore; and race team owners Bobby Rahal and Tony Stewart provide viewpoints that paint a sympathetic, nuanced and full-bodied picture of the documentary’s star.
And while it’s short on revelations (save for Patrick’s announcement that she went through an in vitro fertilization treatment and had her eggs frozen more than a year and a half ago), perhaps the biggest coup is that Storm was able to get Patrick to do this at all.
“I just have never been a fan because they (documentaries) are a lot of work. They are invasive, people follow you around, ask you a lot of questions, of course, everything it takes to film a documentary,” Patrick told the Observer, adding that she’s turned down “a couple projects a year” for more than a decade. “But with it being Hannah, with the fact that she’s been wanting to work with me for awhile, with the fact that I have so many other projects going on, and that ability to then shed a little light on them ... I thought it was a cool way to be able to show my level of involvement with things that don’t get as much attention.”
‘I’ve gotta do what makes me happy’
About those “other projects”? Many pop up, or are referenced, in the film.
She has her own clothing line: Warrior by Danica Patrick, exclusive to the Home Shopping Network. She has her own wine: Somnium, produced at a vineyard in Deer Park, Calif. (The name is Latin for dream.) She’s about to drop her first book: “Pretty Intense,” which touts “a 90-day program to sculpt your body, calm your mind, and achieve your greatest goals,” is due on Dec. 26.
These are the kinds of things that make some wonder whether her heart is truly in racing. But Storm, “Danica’s” director, argues that – no – these are the kinds of things that make her a balanced human being.
“For her, racing is not just the thrill of going fast, it’s the strategy,” says Storm, who has covered NASCAR on and off for decades. (Now an ESPN sportscaster, she actually spent a year – beginning in March 1988 – working at Channel 36 in Charlotte as a sports reporter and weekend anchor.) “She loves that. Loves it. But where Ricky’ll go dirt-track racing (for fun), she’d rather do different things with her spare time ... so that her whole life isn’t racing. She’s a little more of a yin-and-yang kind of person.”
This all begs a question, though, that the film – which ends with her beaming like a kid on Christmas morning after she pulls off a yoga move she’s never nailed before – seems to be building up to yet can’t quite answer.
And that is: When will Danica Patrick move on to the next phase of her life?
At the beginning of 2017, she was dropped by her primary sponsor, Nature’s Bakery. Then in September it was announced that the only female driver to win the Daytona 500 pole will not return to compete for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018.
Next March, she’ll turn 36.
“It’s safe to say that I’m on the backside of my career and not the front, or the middle,” Patrick told the Observer this week. “But at what point that’s gonna be (retirement), I’m not a hundred percent sure right now. ... If I have an opportunity to drive for a team that’s going to give me the ability – or what I think is the best ability – to win, then I’ll do it. But if I don’t feel like that’s the potential, then I won’t. ’Cause that won’t be fun. As I’ve said for about two years: If I don’t feel like it’s fun anymore, I won’t do it. I’m not there to just fill the field, that’s for sure.”
“The only thing that makes people hang onto something a lot of times is their ego,” she continued. “And I’ve gotten better at being able to recognize when that’s what’s speaking up versus something else. So, you know, it chimes in, and it’s like, ‘Well, if you’re done, is anybody gonna care about you? Are you gonna be on TV?’ ‘Oh my gosh! You won’t make as much money anymore!’ And it’s like, ‘Wait a minute. Who cares?’
“I’ve gotta do what makes me happy, and perhaps that might even be even more successful than anything I’ve ever done. Who knows?”